Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Magdalena Kožená is back in town, preparing next week's Met reboot of Idomeneo. (Other changes include Kobie van Rensburg for Ben Heppner and Alexandra Deshorties for Olga Makarina.) If Sunday's recital is any indication, she is in fine form. She sang a straightforward program -- some Mendelssohn, Schumann's Frauenliebe, some Faure, and Dvorak's Gypsy Songs; then three encores, two by Dvorak -- with delicious sound and life and unbroken focus. I've often found the latter coming and going in her performances, making them somehow disappointing. But not today -- she was wholly present, in her best self, all afternoon.

And who's that? Sonically, I heard more mezzo-ism than Maury found on her CD. Of course, that could mean anything in a category that includes Diadkova and Bartoli: I don't think Kozena is quite at the latter's Mezzo-In-Name-Only pole, but then again it wasn't a question that occurred to me as such. (I was more wondering whether it would be she or the next singer in the series -- Angelika Kirchschlager -- who'd display the lighter, higher voice.)

But it was her interpretations that had me fixed, and what they revealed about her art. Frauenliebe und -leben, I think, gave an accurate glimpse of the whole. Kozena is unhesitant in responding to the moods of the piece, and its thread of desire suits her well. But as game and responsive as she is, neither spirit nor instrument follows Schumann's protagonist into extremes of joy, sorrow, self-abnegation, or conceit. There her person seems to balk, and her beautiful sound to strain in vain for stronger coloring. (Even the straight-toned climaxes of the last song seemed more clever than anything else.)

It's the middle where she shines: melancholy states across which quick moods flash. Faure songs showed the more refined side of this gift, and the Dvorak the earthy. And the emotions she drew forth therein were no less strong for lacking abandon.

It was a wholly pleasant and satisfying success on her part. The only sour note was otherwise-commendable accompanist Malcolm Martineau's bizarre bursts of face-making (at the audience!) at the ends of songs. What was that?

*     *     *

Writing of this event, though, reminds me of my lapse in not yet mentioning the finest, most moving recital here in many years (of late, I can only compare Matthias Goerne's stunning pair of May 2000 afternoons): Dorothea Röschmann's October 12 performance at Carnegie (Zankel) Hall. Kozena's future Idomeneo co-star followed a somewhat strange duo recital here this spring with this solo program:
Schubert's Lady of the Lake songs (D 837, 838, 830, and 839), two of his Mignon songs (D 877 #2-3), his Gretchen fragment (D 564) and famous spinning song (D 118)

Mahler's "Das irdische Leben", "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen", and "Lob des hohen Verstandes"

Berg's Seven Early Songs
And two encores, on which -- beyond recalling that the latter was a famous slow Romantic song, done spellbindingly -- I've unfortunately blanked.

In some overly clever sense one might call Röschmann Kozena's shadowy double. To experience Röschmann is sometimes to be overpowered by nothing but abandon, though on this evening she had her sound, vocal climaxes, and balance as well -- and so many of her strongest effects are carried on that dark shimmering lower register. (The top, though she is certainly a soprano, shows less character.) Where sharp feelings of personal character are secondary to mood and color, as in the Berg songs, she might on a lesser night leave one wishing a singer more like Kozena -- able to focus naturally on those other matters. But her Mignon, her Gretchen, and even her Ellen are transcendent in their unalloyed feeling; beyond comfort and any sort of pleasantry, they are piteously and terribly and most wholly human. As is their vessel.

In Mahler too -- she makes even the ass a feeling character.

Graham Johnson was an excellent accompanist, though his temper's more objective than his singer's. Not to knock either, but hearing Johnson and Martineau reminded me that my favorite current accompanist is actually Warren Jones...

*     *     *

Is Ilia, then, the darker and more desperate of the Idomeneo pair? Ideally: maybe, maybe not. But I've no doubt that Röschmann and Kožená can make great opera from their contrasts.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.